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A Remembrance: Reconnecting With Baltimore Through The Orioles

September 15, 2015

By Michael Janofsky

The following is a guest column written by former New York Times correspondent Michael Janofsky regarding his recent reconnection with Baltimore, through the Orioles.

It's rare that I get back to Baltimore these days. I grew up there and began my writing career covering sports for the Evening Sun. I left in 1978 -- first to Miami, then New York, Washington, D.C., Denver and Washington again, where I finished 24 years with The New York Times as a news correspondent. 

In 2006, I moved to Los Angeles, where my wife has had a long career in television. 

These days, I edit a news site that covers public education.

While my jobs have taken me far and wide, the Orioles remain part of my DNA, borne out of the love my parents had for the team and my own exposure to the Orioles as a child that grew into a love for the team much later. My father took me to the Orioles' first home game in Memorial Stadium, a win against the White Sox in 1954 that I more remember for the man sitting behind us who kept blowing cigar smoke into my 7-year-old face. 

A few years later, my parents bought two season tickets, seven rows up on the third-base side, straight up from the "io" in "Orioles" that was painted onto the roof of the dugout. My parents went to nearly every home game, and my mother always kept score. You didn't need to tell her the difference between forward- and backward-facing Ks.

All that background is predicate for the highlight of my summer this year, a trip back to Baltimore and Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the first time in more than a decade. 

Built around three weekend games with the Oakland Athletics in the middle of August, the trip was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was more to satisfy an internal tug that had begun months before, as a need to reconnect, to feel my roots, to share the communal joy of cheering for your favorite team when it's playing at home. (Watching the Orioles when they're playing the Angels down the road in Anaheim, is fun, but when only a dozen or so of us are screaming "O" during the National Anthem, well, it's not quite the same as in Camden Yards.)

Anyway, my eagerness to return began on a day during the winter when I learned about a new book celebrating the history of the franchise -- "60 Years of Orioles Magic," written by an old friend, Jim Henneman. I ordered a copy right away and waited weeks for it to come. What finally arrived was far more than I anticipated.

Opening the front cover, I got only so far as a two-page black-and-white photo of Brooks, connecting on a pitch in the 1970 World Series. The ball had just left his bat, because the fans were still looking at him.

Instinctively, I studied the stands beyond his left shoulder, counted seven rows up and what I saw made my knees buckle. There were my parents, clear as day, watching from their seats. That did it. I checked the home schedule and found the right weekend for a trip "home."

The plan was simple, go straight to Camden Yards from the airport in time for the Friday night game, return for the one Saturday night, then fly home after the Sunday afternoon game. The logistics worked out perfectly, but I could never have scripted so much of what happened before I left.

The games,  you may remember, were the most exciting consecutive wins of the year: A walk-off Friday night when Manny scorched one into the left-field seats in the 13th inning; another walk-off on Saturday night on a Crush Davis homer in the ninth; then a joyful 18-2 romp on Sunday afternoon.

But it wasn't just the games that made the weekend so special for me. It was everything else, starting with my reconnecting with Jim Henneman. Jim gave me my first job in sports when I was still attending the University of Maryland in College Park. At the time, he was the public relations director for the old Baltimore Bullets, and he hired me as his assistant. I still have program notes I wrote, pasted into a scrapbook that also has the first stories I wrote for the Evening Sun

That was back in 1969-1970. Jim later returned to sports writing at the old Baltimore News-American, and I joined the Evening Sun, my first full-time job, covering high schools, later the Bullets and then the Orioles. We had not stayed in touch over the years, but Jim meant a lot to me, having helped get my writing career started. 

So when his book came out, I sent off a note of congratulations and told him about seeing my parents in the photo. I said it had started me thinking about coming back to town over the summer; he urged me to visit and to let him know my plans.

We made arrangements to meet at Dempsey's Brew Pub in the Warehouse, the iconic signature of Camden Yards, after the Friday night game. Because it ran so late, and he had to finish up his official scorer duties, I sat alone at the bar for nearly an hour, but entirely content for the happy atmosphere around me. Jim finally got there sometime after midnight, and we sat around for another hour or so, exchanging memories and funny stories. He introduced me to people walking by and told them we hadn't seen each other in 35 years. I was thinking it was more like 45. Either way, it felt like no time at all had passed.

The next morning, after very little sleep, I rented a car for the other reason I came. I wanted to drive out to the cemetery where my parents are buried. My father died in 1992, three months before Camden Yards opened; my mother died five years later. I hadn't been to their graves in more than a decade.

It was beautiful when I got there, sunny, a slight breeze, a silence broken only by the chirping of birds. I stood there a while, lost in thought, staring at the side-by-side headstones. My eyes were drawn to the dashes that separated their years of birth and death. After my mother-in-law died last year, and we attended a small service at her gravesite on Long Island, the rabbi encouraged us to focus always on the dash between the dates, because that's what represents the lives people led. It was a lovely thought, and it stayed with me. In my parents' dashes, I saw lots of the usual stuff, good times and bad, but also the joy they derived from all those Orioles games with my mother keeping score.

On the way back downtown, I drove by the block in Mount Washington, where I grew up in an attached house alongside the woods where we built tree forts as kids. The woods have long been replaced by new homes, but not the metal fence that ran along the north side of our lawn. It was still there, bashed and bent from the time my grandfather plowed into it with his brand new Buick sometime in the early 1950s. Standing on the sidewalk, I chatted with a young couple living in a house a few doors up from mine. I told them about my grandfather, and they laughed, a neighborhood mystery solved.

I was back at the hotel by noon, with arrangements to spend the rest of the day with my best friend from high school (City) and college, Steve Polakoff, who had joined me for the Friday night game. He picked me up and drove us out to his club for lunch. After college, Steve and I went our separate ways. He was off to optometry school in Chicago, as I threw myself into newspapering. We had stayed in sporadic contact during the years, but rarely saw each other. The weekend gave us time to fill in lots of blanks.

After lunch, he treated me to a driving tour of the city, parts of which I had not seen in decades, other parts I had never seen. As we headed toward downtown along Westside streets, I was dismayed at the condition of so many homes where middle- and working-class families once lived. In some blocks, one house after another appeared crumbling under its own weight, most of them boarded-up and vacant.

But the opposite was true in neighborhoods he showed me east of downtown, including Fells Point and Canton, which I knew of, and Brewers Hill, which I didn't. I was impressed by the number of bars, restaurants and people just hanging out. Lots of them wore Orioles caps and T-shirts.

Jim joined me for that night's game, and we talked so much that we didn't seem to concentrate until Davis smacked the game-winner, and the place went crazy again. This time, I only lasted about a half-hour at Dempsey's. I was exhausted.

Early Sunday morning, I bought a coffee and a newspaper and returned to my hotel room to read and think. I was struck by how much Baltimore had changed over the years, especially downtown. When I was a kid, the area where Camden Yards stands looked like a bombed-out World War II landscape. Now, it's the maypole for a vibrant and expanding city center. That's old news to locals. But it felt new to me. I wondered what my parents would have thought.

Another surprise: the O's provided a guest pass to visit the press box and have lunch in the lounge, a luxury place compared with the postage stamp sized eating space for reporters in old Memorial Stadium. I was introduced around -- to Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun, Roch Kubatko and Steve Melewski of MASN, Rich Dubroff of Comcast SportsNet and Stan "The Fan" Charles, founder and publisher of PressBox. I was humbled when a few of them said they remembered my byline.

During the game, I sat by myself but near a group who had driven down from New York, because they said it was less expensive and less hassle to visit Camden Yards than new Yankee Stadium. They were Yankee fans, which made me feel even better as I rose to cheer for every Oriole hit and run.

By late in the game, when the score reached 16-2, I figured victory was safe, and I headed out to look for a cab back to the airport. Walking along the perimeter of the stadium, I could still hear the cheers.

I began to think how lucky I was to have had such a magical weekend -- an Orioles Magic-al weekend -- that let me reconnect with so many things that meant so much to me, no matter how distant they had become in time and place. It felt good to go home again. Important, too.

Someday, it'll all be part of my dash. 

Issue 213: September 2015